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Jefferson and Bush battle terrorists

Rev. Jack Van Ens

Let’s imagine Thomas Jefferson visiting President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. From a wealth of experience gained from dealing with nasty terrorists who attacked American ships off the Barbary Coast, Jefferson would caution Bush about gargantuan costs rung up defeating this enemy. He’d warn that war against terrorists is of long duration. Establishing a democracy to replace rule by guns and savage power will be a very difficult task.President Jefferson practiced Ben Franklin’s adage: “Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt.” He aimed at keeping a national balanced budget with one striking exception. He battled pirates raiding American ships who came from the Barbary Coast along the northern shore of Africa from Egypt to Gibraltar: Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers and Morocco.Thanks to the buccaneer movie Johnny Depp starred in, we romanticize pirates as witty, charming hellions who love sword fights and sassy hi-jinx. We revel in these rogues’ adventures. The fact is that in Jefferson’s day Barbary pirates raided American ships, chained our sailors, threw them into smelly jails and exacted tribute for their release. These scoundrels made their living by sheer terror on the high seas.Even before Jefferson took office, he remembered a horror story Algerian corsairs perpetrated in 1796. They captured 119 American merchantmen, put them in chain gangs breaking boulders, had them gag on near-starvation rations, and kept them incarcerated for a long 12 years. The United States finally won their freedom by paying $641,000, giving an annual tribute of $21, 600 and throwing in a 36-gun frigate as a gift to the daughter of the kingpin warlord. By then, 31 hostages had died.Soon after assuming the Presidency in March 1801, Jefferson dispatched a small fleet of four warships to the Mediterranean. Their orders were to make this dangerous region safe for democracy by taking on the terrorists and subduing their threat. The saga of how the United States suffered defeat and then victory, only to be followed by more terrorism stretched throughout Jefferson’s first term.After much loss of sailors’ lives, our attacks against the pirates didn’t produce victory. Capitulating to the best of several worst alternatives, the United States signed a treaty with the reigning warlord, the pasha from Tripoli (today the capital of Libya). America had to pay $60,000 in blood money to the rogue buccaneers for every American sailor held hostage by this Algerian terrorist state.Finally, after three painful, arduous decades when our nation fought terrorism, the United States forced the Barbary States to give up their demands for tribute. In 1815, years after Jefferson completed his presidency, our nation cinched a deal with the cutthroat tyrants.Costs are exorbitant when our nation tries to stymie terrorists. President Bush doesn’t like to talk about how much the United States will spend on quelling terror. In December 2002 he fired Lawrence Lindsay, his chief economist, who dared to level with the nation. Lindsay predicted that the total cost might range from $100 billion to $200 billion. The president didn’t want our citizens to hear this sober forecast. He found it politically expedient to let the American public wander in the financial dark.Now fifteen months into Iraqi combat, with our troop strength stretched to the limit, we have already racked up military bills totaling $200 billion. Certainly Ben Franklin’s wisdom is not appreciated nor heeded by the White House. We go to bed with massive debt, and we awake with even more debt. Our policy is to simply turn over in the sack and charge the war to future generations. Donald Rumsfeld and an architect for our war on terrorism in the Middle East, Paul Wolfowitz, told us in 2002 that most of the bills would be paid by Iraqi oil money and revenues kicked in by allies. Terrorists blow up refineries and pipelines. Our allies keep cash in their pockets at home. We shall belly up $5 billion monthly to continue our aim to transform Iraq into a model democracy.The sage expressed the dynamics of what’s missing in Iraq. “How much better to gain wisdom than gold, and the gaining of understanding should be chosen over silver” (Proverbs 16:16).Jefferson would wisely point out to President Bush that democracy usually thrives in countries where at least an educated middle class is emerging or established. He developed a dream, a guiding passion that took him 50 years to accomplish: the founding of the University of Virginia. Jefferson knew that an educated citizenry would have a better chance of practicing tolerance and acknowledging the dignity of every person. His report sharpening the university’s prime purposes links freedom to education: “To expound the principles and structure of government, the laws which regulate the intercourse of nations, those formed municipally for our own government, and the sound spirit or legislation which, banishing all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another.”If George W. Bush responded to Jefferson in the same way he has expressed his convictions to the nation, Jefferson would urge extreme caution in using comparisons involving German and Japan after the World War II. We are told that, using the Marshall Plan, the United States forged strong nations with a democratic heart out of these formerly fascist-led countries. We can replicate this experiment with Iraq.Japan and German produced educated citizenry. Iraq does not. Feudal warlords for centuries have vied for tribal power in Iraq. Blood runs. Civil wars erupt. Education limps along. The iron fist rules, even as it has ruled out democracy. The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens heads Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes” is available in local bookstores for $7.95. Vail, Colorado


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